Sunday, June 29, 2014

Robert Michels, political parties, and bureaucracy

I can't vouch for his later writings on this, but it's somewhat sad that Michels' work on political parties is sometimes looked at as approving on Corporatism. The book is a look at organization in the political parties of Europe in order to try to figure out what makes certain ones successful and which ones fail, and Michels comes to the conclusion that the ones that succeed are the ones that have a higher degree of formalization, paid members, and a nascent bureaucratic structure.

Michels argument about the inadequacy of very decentralized groups to get much done, and the necessity of at least some sort of super-structure that includes a bureaucratic system in it can also be applied to economics as whole. While it's appealing to pretend that all the things that we have these days can be produced by small businesses, that isn't the truth.

To effectively provide for all the things that we're used to, there needs to be extensive organization and coordination, and this requires some type of bureaucratic apparatus. Which is not to say that there should be an ultra-hierarchical top down structure with no countervailing aspects to it.

In my eyes, large scale economic organization is a fact of life, and the only choice we really have in the matter is whether to bring it under social control or to have it control us. I would much rather have big corporations, and those who make up the commanding heights of industry, be nationalized, with their profits going back to the benefit of society as a whole.

This stage in capitalism was foreseen by Marx as being the logical end towards which things were tending.

The questions that Michels brings up also cuts to the heart of the debate about how participatory a participatory democracy can really be. Michels' study points to a hard reality where although participation by large amounts of people is promoted, it's only partially successful. Instead, the work in political organizations, as he saw them, constantly devolved back on to a smaller group of people who were consistently prepared to do it.  In the system of the German Social Democratic Party, this was not a problem in that these folks were eventually made professional employees of the organization and they went on to really effect change. In the other parties that Michels studied, however, that were more decentralized, it was, in that they couldn't just go out and do their thing but had to go through a largely apathetic series of local bodies that were attended by people who were lackluster about doing anything themselves.

What Michels describes as the oligarchical tendency in society was not in this writing of his something that he rejoiced in, but a grim fact that he had come to after being an activist in the radical syndicalist arena for a while. Fundamentally, it would be great if the decentralized notion of things could actually function, but at some point you have to choose between actually accomplishing things in the world and paying lip service to increasingly unproductive process. Faced with this, Michels choose accomplishing things, even if it was not done in a way that went beyond normal democratic accountability and went instead into realms of ultra-participation, where something positive becomes a reducto-ad absurdam.

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